In my last review of his work, after already beholding a singing cowboy on actual horseback in “Oklahoma!” and a functioning, full-scale Ferris wheel as the centerpiece of “Carousel,” I couldn’t help myself from doubting whether Serenbe Playhouse founder and artistic director Brian Clowdus would ever be able to match the experience of watching a real helicopter landing and taking off during the climactic moments of “Miss Saigon.”
“Titanic: The Musical” comes mighty close. The company performs in and around the spacious outdoor environment of the rustic community of Serenbe in Chattahoochee Hills (some 35 miles south of Atlanta), and Clowdus’ latest site-specific production is situated on a bona fide lake, no less.
Scenic designer Adam Koch’s massive set depicts the doomed 1912 ocean liner as a skeletal framework, with four distinct levels of metal scaffolding to represent the ship’s various floors — five, if you count a top tier of billowing smokestacks. The structure itself is stationary and the interior decorations are hardly luxurious, barely existent at all, save for a chandelier that emerges from the water at the start of the show, rising into place only to submerge beneath the surface again when the vessel meets its inevitable fate at the end.
Groups of surviving passengers row to safety aboard real lifeboats, while the less fortunate jump from the decks above, plunging to their watery graves below. In a couple of particularly chilling moments, Clowdus and Koch simulate the sinking ship with different segments of the platforms that gradually lower characters into and under the lake.
Despite winning a handful of Tonys (including Best Musical), not even the original 1997 Broadway version of the show could quite pull that off. Featuring a book by Peter Stone (“1776”) and songs by Maury Yeston (“Nine”), Serenbe’s “Titanic” boasts a cast of 40 actors and singers, under the superb music direction of Chris Brent Davis (conducting an exemplary 11-member orchestra), and beautifully costumed by Alan Yeong.
From a dramatic standpoint, a lot of the characters are interchangeable and nondescript, while a few others are tedious stock figures (Robert Hindsman as the pompous president of the White Star Line, Shannon McCarren as an overstepping second-class busybody). Some are totally miscast: as the affluent Madeleine and John Jacob Astor, Erin Burnett is a bit mature to be believed as a 19-year-old child bride, especially opposite the boyish Charles Fowler as a husband who’s supposed to be 30 years her senior.
Musically, some of the splashier production numbers that involve the entire ensemble (“Doing the Latest Rag,” “Dressed in Your Pyjamas in the Grand Salon”) are rather hokey. Exceptions include the rousing “What a Remarkable Age This Is!” and the stirring, heartfelt “Finale.”
(The bigger the number, the harder it can be to make out a lot of the lyrics. All of the actors and singers are equipped with individual body mics, their voices emanating from the same set of speakers. But because the stage is so expansive and heavily populated, it’s often challenging to pinpoint who’s talking or singing, and from where, although lighting designer Kevin Frazier’s spotlights help.)
Distinguishing themselves in more personalized solos or duets: the excellent Casey Shuler as an idealistic Irish lass, singing lead on “Lady’s Maid”; Chase Peacock as a boiler-room stoker and Chase Davidson as a telegraph operator with “The Proposal/The Night Was Alive”; Jordan Patrick’s “No Moon”; Chris Saltalamacchio’s “To Be a Captain,” later reprised by Ben Thorpe; and Robert Wayne and Lilliangina Quinones’ “Still,” playing an elderly couple who’d rather die together than live apart.
Call Clowdus’ concept a proverbial sink-or-swim proposition. The ship may not literally sink, but the show definitely swims.
‘Titanic: The Musical’
Through Aug. 19. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays. $35-$60. The Inn Lake at Serenbe, 10950 Hutchesons Ferry Road, Chattahoochee Hills. 770-463-1110. www.serenbeplayhouse.com.
Bottom line: Largely smooth sailing — and literally immersive.